In the photo above is my Aunt Jo, my cousin, Linda, Linda’s mom, my Aunt Kelly, and my mother. This was our kitchen in Englewood, Colorado, so I’m guessing it was Thanksgiving 1958. I would have been six.
Literally two minutes before I lost contact with the world last week because wild-fires burned down microwave towers in the mountains, I got an email from a cousin telling me my Aunt Jo had died. It was no surprise. For a long period in early spring/late winter she’d been in hospice care AND she was 95 years old. Then the internet went down and my phone went dead. At first I figured, “24 hours” but it just went on for five days. I worked on my novel and attempted to use the WIFI at the library (it worked once) then I gave up until my neighbor told me about free WIFI at the park.
But even then… I didn’t contact my cousin — my Aunt Jo’s son — or anyone. I meant to but what I had to say was something beyond words. When I finally did text my cousin I said I was happy that now he had his freedom. That may sound cold, but the past 7 years have been a long haul for him caring for a woman with whom he had a complicated relationship and who also had dementia. That’s families for you. I understand. I was raised by a woman who didn’t like me, and I was stuck at the end with her, making arrangements and taking her verbal abuse. It’s not all happiness in family life and, finally, even the sorrow isn’t clear.
Aunt Jo showing her grand-daughter, Monica and my niece, Andrea, meadowlark eggs
I loved my Aunt Jo very much and we were close, good friends. She gave me something I needed very badly and that was the truth about my own mother and her treatment of me. Anyone who’s known or been in a relationship with a sociopath KNOWS that they have the ability to alter your perception of reality, and I grew up knowing something was true and yet unable to believe it.
One night a few years after my mom died, my Aunt Jo (next in line in the family birth order) sat me down and talked to me straight about it, how it appeared to her, to my Aunt Dickie and my Aunt Martha. It was a moment of intense revelation to me because I KNEW the truth inside me, but was not able to believe it. An example, let’s say I had an appointment with the school counselor (something that happened every year for every kid). The morning of that event my mom would say, “I know what you’ll do. You’ll make up some story that I beat you.”
In fact, she didn’t exactly BEAT me but I could count on a fair share (nice use of irony?) of face slaps, arm bruises, shaking and so on. Her tendency was more toward psychological sadism than physical abuse. Usually all the school counselor wanted to talk to us about were our grades — but my mom’s defensiveness about her behavior and fear that I might tell someone is pretty interesting in retrospect.
I never knew until that night with my Aunt Jo that anyone noticed. I NOW know that her sisters closest to my mom in age had noticed everything, and all of them tried in their own way to mitigate the hurt
Beyond all that ugliness was a lot of wonder in my Montana extended family. There were seven sisters, and my Aunt Jo was the second to youngest. She was outgoing, could tell a good story, liked people, worked hard to earn money working at the school cafeteria, then a gardening shop, went to florist school, worked as a florist, worked in the hospital gift shop. She grew apple trees and beautiful gardens. One year — 8 years ago — she and my uncle planted three little cherry tomato plants in a big, red wagon and named them “the kids.” They moved them to the sunny spots in their yard all day.
My brother and I stayed with them for a few months in the late 1950s and during that time I learned an important lesson in my life. My two older cousins (boys) teased me constantly and some days (like the one they hung my Tiny Tears doll from a noose in a cottonwood tree) were awful. That day, after dinner and dishes, my Aunt Jo took me out to the front porch and taught me to count my blessings. She went first. She said, “I don’t have a little girl of my own, but I get to have you as my little girl for a little while.” I don’t remember mine but I guess it was that I was grateful that Uncle Hank made the boys cut my doll down from the tree. We had to come up with ten blessings and we did this every night after supper.
What a life skill!!!!
I know a lot more about the lives of my mom and her sisters now and how they grew up. I don’t know if counting their blessings was part of it, but it seems to me it might have been. I do know that right now though I’m sad that I will never see any of them again I am grateful that I knew them and that even without my knowing it, they looked out for me. I am grateful for the years — the Christmases and summer weeks — I got to spend as an adult with my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank after my mother died. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have known them — all of us as grownups — for all our conversations, for the jokes and for the love and understanding that we shared